How to build a successful game studio — in California

How do you make an already global online game company more inclusive? Did you release one for tots? How about introducing features in other parts of the world? The entrepreneur behind one such company,…

How to build a successful game studio -- in California

How do you make an already global online game company more inclusive? Did you release one for tots? How about introducing features in other parts of the world? The entrepreneur behind one such company, San Francisco-based game-maker Unravel Studios, is listening to his audience — and building the 21st century board game to meet their expectations.

Monument Valley has already sold 8 million copies worldwide, as of 2017. A partnership with Khachaturian Studios in India has expanded the franchise to include 28 different characters and scenarios for kids (which sell for about $10 each) at the source as well as distributors throughout India.

“There are over 350 million games a year sold in India, and India is also the fastest growing market for mobile games,” said Yiannis Mouzakis, a former Stanford business school graduate who launched Unravel Studios in 2011. He’s raised an additional $4 million from investors and is now working to launch the mobile game in the first quarter of 2020.

“In the US, we thought the mobile market was safe, and why wouldn’t I be able to experiment with the game to create something new?” Mouzakis said. “But that’s not the case. I came up with an idea and shared it with others, and the response was very positive.”

But Mouzakis has built an entire company based on his own gut instinct, working in a fast-paced incubator and developing independent projects over a two-year period, while also building partnerships for his roster of original games. Two days after finishing a project, he meets with his co-workers to talk about the problem he’s solved — trying to make board games that are popular with non-US players.

“It’s often so late in the process that we don’t have the creative cues” in those initial days, he said. “Instead, we launch across every imaginable platform we can get to before we even meet the team, and we spend a lot of time dealing with costs and rules.”

Mouzakis declined to reveal revenue, but said the company’s average revenue per week is three to four times what the worldwide average is, partly because its social media-savvy audience “on average spends 80% more than the average participant does.”

“Our average audience is over 60% women, and that’s partly due to the lack of social norms in the US,” he said. “In India, I know that girls have a very different set of values to the American culture, and that impacts things like how people spend money.”

What Mouzakis is describing are the minds of game designers. The individual games are not just items for anyone to discover. Players typically end up and contribute their own stories to the game, playing out person after person in order to unlock the next one.

“It’s a different kind of arc than what we see in Western board games,” he said. “I’ve seen very few more rewarding relationships develop from these types of games than those in labor groups.”

Mouzakis continues to move forward as a game design team independent of Silicon Valley giant Electronic Arts, which bought Unravel Studios in 2016. He said he envisions his company evolving into an innovative development company, a small, renegade company that can make the most of the strength of its own creative talent and produces original games.

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